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My Mother's Irises

These are my mother’s irises.

Three decades ago, I followed my heart’s desire for big skies, big mountains and a big life and moved from the East Coast to Colorado. My mom, then a high school teacher, came to visit each April during her Spring Break. For a few years I lived with a bunch of women at the top of a hill in Boulder. At the bottom of this hill and across the street is Long’s Gardens, a gorgeous family-owned farm that is 25 acres of oasis in the middle of the city. Since 1905, the Long family has specialized in bearded iris, technically, rhizomes. On one of our early field trips, exploring this area that is so different from our New England town and a very long way from the Bronx, we discovered this place. Mom bought a huge variety, packed them in her suitcase and flew them back to Connecticut.

If you know about this flower (and you really should, would you just look at this marvel?) you know that irises like to spread their love. If not divided after about 4 years, the plant will actually stop blooming. It wants to grow! The iris will cultivate and propagate easily, making it a delight for gardeners. Iris takes its name from the Greek word for rainbows, which is also the name of the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris.

I’d watched my mother in the garden my whole life. Even in New York City, we had a yard with a few rose bushes that she tended. As a kid in Connecticut, then as a teen, I watched her take her worries and frustrations out to the garden, escaping into nature, and stories. I’d find her there often holding a hose in one hand and a book in the other. Sometimes she’d set up a miniature office outside just to be near her garden. (Here she is in 1975, typing away, curlers and all.) I watched her grow many flowers and vegetables and I watched her grow herself.

In middle age, Mom traveled with good friends, read voraciously, and laughed hard whenever she could. Her home life was not pretty like the irises. Our visits in Colorado were medicine. I got to know my mother as a person, as an interesting and strong woman, as a deep thinker with a wicked wit, and as a true friend.

Over the years, Mom’s Boulder irises flourished. She dug them up, divided them and made new gardens. I’m now the same age Mom was when she started to visit me, 58. Until the Alzheimer’s began to eat her brain, she came to Colorado annually for 18 years. I count my blessings that I had that time with her.

Back in 2004, Jay and I, with our baby Marin, took our truck camper on a grand adventure to Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula, Canada, all through New England and then parked in my parents’ driveway for about a week. By then, Mom’s gardens had dwindled both in size and vitality. Together we took some shovels and dug up these Boulder irises, planted in this soil 14 years prior. We took clumps of rhizomes apart by hand, divided them into sections, put them into bags wrapped in wet paper towels and dirt and loaded up the camper for the trip back to Colorado.

At that time, we lived in a ranch house in a little neighborhood in Lyons, surrounded by other families with young ones. Over the next nine years we lived there, Mom’s irises lit up the backyard each spring. Like clockwork, on Memorial Day weekend, I could count on these beauties to appear in all of their fierce grace.

When we moved to a place across town, with more gardening possibilities, many of Mom’s irises came with me. She never got to visit us in our new home. Unable to navigate the commotion and constant decision-making of travel, her last trip to us was in 2008.

Local gardeners here in Lyons dig up and divide their plants each year and offer them up to one another. Every fall, I plant a few more irises. The gardens grow into themselves and get more interesting and multi-layered (sort of like people) and now have yellow and white and violet and deep purple explosions intertwined with one another. These are “standard” tall-bearded irises. Irises have all sorts of great names: Chocolate Cascade, Ski Run, Abracadabra, Scintillation and Peanut Butter Skies. It’s another thing to love about them. When people ask me what kind I have growing in my garden, I simply say, “Those are my mom’s irises.”

My Mom died a few years ago, after a decade of Alzheimer’s. I grieved alone. Families are painful and complicated sometimes and grief is a funny thing. It comes and goes and it shows up when you least expect it and flattens you on the floor for a bit and you’re not quite sure just how it is you’re supposed to live without this person by your side.

But I have these flowers that come up year after year to announce the opening of Spring, the beginning of new chapters, yet another chance of new life. A fresh breath. I have my mother’s irises.


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